The Play Is the Thing
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The art of Italian playwright Dario Fo is rooted in a very old comic tradition as John Tatlin of Independent Television News reports.
JOHN TATLIN, ITN: Dario Fo, acting here in one of his own plays, was described the judge as emulating the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden. He’s an unexpected choice, not least because he’s a playwright– but a popular one. He’s more widely known than some recent Nobel Prize winners. He’s still writing copiously, but his heyday was in the 70′s when he wrote “The Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” and “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.” They both had strong political messages.
The Nobel prize could help to keep his popularity alive. There’s a large body of work, 70 plays, to choose from, and wherever they’re performed he loves to get personally involved.
TOM SUPPLE, Director: He brought a great clarity of mind about the political intentions of the work that he had written, but also a great sense of fun, pleasure. By that stage we were taking it rather too seriously, and he literally gave us jokes and created things for us that would work on stage, but more importantly than that, he taught us about the simple truths, the serious simple truths that make up great comedy.
JOHN TATLIN: His energy and versatility mean that whatever the honors he’ll keep working. This is a rap video he’s recently produced. At 71 he doesn’t believe in standing still.
DARIO FO: (speaking through interpreter) I improvise tonight. I have to change because audiences have changed, and this process of adaptation, transformation, and renewal in front of the audience enables the public to sense the freshness of what you’re doing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more now we turn to Ron Jenkins, who directs and teaches theater at Emerson College and who has translated for Dario Fo during his travels in the United States, and to Carey Perloff, artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Thanks to you both for being with us. Ron Jenkins, this is a very political playwright. Were you surprised by the award?
RON JENKINS, Translator/Writer: Yes. I was surprised, not because I didn’t think that Dario deserved the award but because I thought it took a lot of courage to give the Nobel Prize to an artist who is a clown, is a great clown, and it’s easy to dismiss clowns as being trivial or superficial. But Dario’s a clown in the deepest sense of the word, and his language and literature of the theater goes to the heart of clowning and tragedy and in its deepest sense.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ron Jenkins, tell us a little about him and how he came to use the persona of the jester, of the clown?
RON JENKINS: Well, he did a lot of research into the medieval traditions of comedy and he brings them to life in his work. And he went back to medieval times when clowns were the voices of oppressed people. And he tries to bring those voices to life in modern contexts.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Carey Perloff, how does he do that? What does he do in his plays? What’s he doing with the clown persona?
CAREY PERLOFF, American Conservatory Theater: I think he’s tapping into what is pure theater, which is that you break what we in the theater call the fourth wall and you land sort of right in the emotional and sort of political lap of the audience. You know, he will wander through a crowd, talking to people, arguing with people, improvising. He’s an astonishing improviser, and create larger than life archetypal characters, which we all recognize. So it’s impossible to sit in a Dario Fo performance and not feel implicated, not feel made fun of, not feel I think enormously amused and also I think in many ways profoundly moved.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he plays all the characters in some of these performances, right?
CAREY PERLOFF: Not always. I mean, he has had many companies in his time, and he collaborates with his wife, who’s also an important artist, Franco Rama, for whom I think this award is also a tribute to her, but he is the consummate transformational clown. He can play, you know, the head of Fiat and transform into that–his wife–and then transform into a laborer–and then transform into the automobile itself, you know, in the space of 30 seconds. I mean, he has an amazing ability that way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us what happened when you performed a Dario Fo play in San Francisco.
CAREY PERLOFF: Oh, we got in terrible trouble, which he probably would have loved, because he is controversial, without at all being didactic. I think that’s important–well didactic in the negative sense. I think that’s important to say I think that Dario Fo wakes up an audience through comedy, rather than through bludgeoning them over the head with his point of view, but we did a new play called “The Pope and the Witch” in which the Pope has a visionary diversion and decides that he believes in free abortion on demand, and this did not go over well with the Catholic Church or other people in this town and it generated a lot of controversy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ron Jenkins, explain the way that Dario Fo thinks about his audience. He has such a respect for the audience he has said, and how does that affect what he does? He establishes intimacy immediately with the audience, is that right?
RON JENKINS: He has a very intimate sense of the audience. He has the ability to make contact directly. Sometimes before the play begins he’ll be in the audience ushering them to their seats and inviting them to sit up on stage with him. And that rapport with the audience is imbedded in his language as a writer because he’s writing with the rhythms of the audience built into the language that he speaks to the audience. He turns his monologues into a dialogue, and the audience’s role is right there in the works.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ron Jenkins, you’ve called what he does epic clowning. What did you mean by that?
RON JENKINS: Well, it’s epic clowning because it’s the kind of clowning that goes deep into human hungers. It’s–like all great clowning, like Chapman, like Keaton–he’s talking about people who are hungry not only for food but hungry for dignity, hungry for justice, and his clowning gives you an epic sweep and understanding of those very deep human hungers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ron Jenkins, why was he kept out of the United States?
RON JENKINS: Under the McClaren Act in the 70′s and 80′s he was refused a visa to the United States, and it wasn’t until Bob Brucestein at the American Repertory Theater had the courage to invite him to come and perform here in 1986 that he made his first American appearance for which he thanked Ronald Reagan for all the publicity for keeping him out of the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Carey Perloff, has he had much influence in this country?
CAREY PERLOFF: Sometimes not as much as one would wish, I think, but yes, here in San Francisco there’s a very famous company called the San Francisco Mime Troop, which performs free public outdoor performances, scripted newly every year, and one of their great successes was a Dario Fo play called “We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay,” and Joan Holden, who’s their resident playwright, translated our production of “The Pope and the Witch,” and I think has that whole company–has brought that anarchic and wonderful spirit of political comedy to the Bay area and to the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly, what was “We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay” about, so we give people a sense of what he’s writing about?
CAREY PERLOFF: It’s very hard to describe Dario Fo plots because they are anarchic. And all of them deal with subverting either church ideology or government ideology or capitalism in some way by refusing to do something–in this case refusing to pay for goods that were substandard. All of his plays in some way tackle basic givens, societal givens, and question why society is set up that way, and why some people have and some people don’t. In a sense I think that’s the role of any great clown is to make us look at ourselves in a defamiliarized way. Another great American artist whom I think has been very influenced by Fo is the clown and performer Bill Irwin, who won a MacArthur Award for his work and also grew out of this tradition of theatrical clowning.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ron Jenkins, he has his detractors too, doesn’t he? The Vatican will not be happy about this award for example.
RON JENKINS: Yes. Dario was censored from Italian television for doing his portrayal of a 12th century Pope who was known for being particularly cruel and hanging monks by their tongues from the church doors when they didn’t agree with him, which is a pretty vivid emblem of censorship. And what happened to Dario Fo when he presented that, that he essentially was censored by the national television in Italy and removed from the airwaves. But that didn’t stop him from performing in factories, football stadiums, and anyplace he could find to get his, his words across.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Carey, just very briefly, what do you hope will be the effect of this in the United States? We have a little time left.
CAREY PERLOFF: I think it will make people celebrate theater as a live art form that is worthy of recognition as great literature, that the liveness of theater and the sound of people responding in a collective way to rich language is something that’s both a very ancient art form and something that I hope even in our media-driven age is something that we still treasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.